School resources for mental health are crucial to ensuring a safe school environment

Whenever there is a mass shooting in schools, public discussion often focuses on laws or policies that could prevent the tragedy. But preventing school violence needs more than a gun policy. It requires both prevention and response to crises that take into account the emotional well-being of students – not just their physical safety.

Preventing school violence also requires professionals – counselors, psychologists and social workers – who know how to create an emotionally safe environment, which research shows is crucial for safe schools. Unfortunately, statistics show that there is an acute shortage of such employees. Lack of staff has become a major obstacle to creating schools that are emotionally safe for children.

As teachers of school psychology who train future school psychologists, we know that school counselors, psychologists and social workers are missing. Although school shootings have led to increased hiring of police officers to serve in schools, the hiring of mental health experts at the school is not keeping pace. Demand is greater than supply, a trend that is expected to continue in the coming years.

Questions for staff

The employment of school counselors is expected to increase by 11% over the next decade. However, there are not enough trained specialists to take the positions. The current ratio is already twice as high as it should be, with one school counselor for every 464 students and one school psychologist for every 1,200 students. These ratios are even higher in schools where most students are members of ethnic or racial minorities.

Better staffed schools are more likely to use preventive and restorative approaches to violence against students – those that aim to educate rather than those that simply aim to punish. In understaffed schools, providers only manage to deal with emergencies instead of doing the preventive work needed to make schools safer and more successful.

The main preventive and restorative activities to promote an emotionally safe environment include:

  • Promoting related communities:Research has found that when students feel more comfortable at school and feel they belong there, they are less likely to engage in aggressive behavior at school – even when they have experienced violence at home. Key activities such as group decision-making, team building and conflict resolution – often led by teachers with the support of school mental health staff – can help build this type of community.
  • Teaching social and emotional skills:School mental health professionals can help ensure that all students are taught strategies to identify their feelings, reassure and connect with others. Students with these skills not only have fewer behavioral problems and less emotional stress at school, but also get better grades. However, most states do not require schools to teach these skills to all students.
  • Early intervention:Schools are in a unique position to provide proactive support when data suggest a widespread need. For example, the rate of anxiety and depression among young people has doubled since the beginning of the pandemic, so up to 20% of students in the classroom may be affected. Targeted therapeutic support provided in small group formats by school mental health staff can help prevent the development of future disorders.
  • Providing affordable mental health support:Schools can be a major source of support for the mental health of young people in crisis. This includes both the provision of direct services at school and the coordination of care with community providers. For many students, especially colored students and those with fewer financial resources, school may be the only affordable way to treat mental health.

Training of school staff

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic and much more severe since its inception, schools are struggling to provide sufficient support for students’ mental health, given the lack of staff.

Several federal bills have been proposed aimed at expanding the number of school mental health workers. A bill will help expand the pipeline by subsidizing the cost of training graduates for those who commit to work in schools. Another will provide grants directly to schools to fund additional school positions. However, experts predict that both bills have only a 3% chance of being passed by Congress.

Originally published in The Conversation.

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